Down the Rabbit-Hole

Michael Metzger

“You must be feeling a bit like Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole?” “You could say that,” Neo replied. Then came Morpheus’ offer: “You take the blue pill and the story ends. You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.” The offer still stands. Take the red pill and go down the rabbit-hole.

Last week we began to scratch below the surface of a phenomenon called the Enlightenment. Andy and Larry Wachowski portrayed it as The Matrix. Iain McGilchrist says it’s a left-hemisphere take-over (The Master and His Emissary). Jacques Ellul said it’s the triumph of technology over wisdom (The Technological Society). James K. A. Smith said it’s a deadly anthropology that has infected the church (Desiring the Kingdom).

If we go further down the rabbit-hole, we run into Michael Polanyi. In Personal Knowledge, he wrote how the “enlightenment has shaken the stability of beliefs held explicitly as articles of faith” throughout history. It fostered a utilitarian conception of science divorced from a moral base. The Enlightenment chants one mantra: If it can be done, it should be done. Pragmatism reigns. Purpose becomes a meaningless abstraction.

At this depth, we see how crony capitalism came to be. In The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Daniel Bell writes how the Enlightenment turns “one’s back on the past” and “shreds the ties which compel continuity.” It relegated religion to a sideshow “and moved the center of authority from the sacred to the profane” – from institutions to unfettered individualism. Capitalism and commerce were no longer viewed as social institutions with moral responsibilities. They were simply ways to make lots of money. Sadly, many Christians have fallen prey to this enchantment.

It is estimated that Christians – mostly men – were at the helm of 70 percent of the companies that had ethics violations over the last 20 years. Robert Solomon pins this on the Enlightenment. In Continental Philosophy since 1750, the Rise and Fall of Self, Solomon presents a provocative thesis – Enlightenment atheists did not set out to ‘disprove’ the existence of God. Rather, they pushed faith to the periphery, so that even people who considered themselves pious believers would end up behaving as if they didn’t believe in God at all. Numerous studies indicate this is happening. The language Christians use to describe their beliefs and behaviors routinely lacks any meaningful connection to actual behaviors.

If we go deeper, we see how beliefs and behaviors became disconnected. Deep down the rabbit-hole, we run into Philip Rieff. He wrote The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud. Rieff called the Enlightenment “the unreligion of the age.” It’s “master science” is “the systematic hunting down of all settled convictions.” The Matrix of Modernity says beliefs about Christ can only be held privately, not publicly.

Rieff shines a light on Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith’s research. Smith defines today’s de facto gospel as moralistic therapeutic deism.1 It’s moralistic because the goal is to be a nice, kind, positive Christian whose chief concern is to come off as non-judgmental. It’s therapeutic because the gospel is not about repenting from sin or publicly confessing but feeling safe. As James Nolan notes, “Where once the self was to be surrendered, denied, sacrificed, and died to, now the self is to be esteemed, actualized, affirmed and unfettered.”2 The Enlightenment turns the numinous – the supernatural – into narcissism. However, inside the Matrix, Christians still talk about “authentic” faith – largely unaware of their words being disconnected from reality.

This is why, toward the bottom of the rabbit-hole, we run into C. S. Lewis. In The Abolition of Man, he observed that for both Christian and classical culture, the principle moral task was “how to subdue the soul to reality” – that is, how do we train our souls to fit in with the order of things in the universe. The Enlightenment project, he warned, tries to “subdue reality to the wishes of men.” It’s opposed to institutions, since they form boundaries. Lewis foresaw how the social institutions operating inside modernity would encourage the liberation and fulfillment of desires rather than their restraint. If you watch TV, you know 90 percent of the shows operate with this assumption. Lewis said this supposed liberation would ultimately lead to the ruination of humankind.

If this all seems rather murky, perhaps you’ve never been down the rabbit-hole. For Lewis Carroll, Wonderland was where Alice’s eyes became acclimated to reality. But for this to happen, she had to descend down the hole, stay a while in Wonderland, and then – and only then – was Alice able to see through the insanity of the modern world.

One reason people found Jesus to be sane was because he saw through the pious vocabulary of religious hypocrites. A healthy faith gives us “eyes to see.” Sadly, too many Christians only see to the things they experience – Facebook and Twitter and TV. They take them in, but fail to see where they’re being taken in. If they saw through their toys and technologies, they’d be shocked – like Neo. “It’s not possible!” he gasped.

It is possible.

Morpheus’ cold comfort to Neo was that Wonderland would reacquaint him with reality. But he had to take the red pill and go down the rabbit-hole. The late German psychologist Alexander Mitscherlich said the Enlightenment aims to create a “society without fathers,” a perception of reality rejecting any pre-existing structures of authority. He was describing The Matrix. It feels like freedom, but if you remain in Wonderland long enough, you see we’re only amusing ourselves to death.

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1 Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005)
2 James Nolan, The Therapeutic State (New York: New York University Press, 1998), p. 3.

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6 thoughts on “Down the Rabbit-Hole”

  1. Mike,
    I appreciate the conclusion that we are “amusing ourselves to death.” It is not only philosophically accurate it nails our entertainment saturated culture! Our kids can reach the highest levels of Doom!,but can’t hold a human to human relationship. We’re not so good ourselves!
    Fight the good fight…with wisdom and love.

  2. Mike – great post.

    Question about the statement: “The Enlightenment project, he (CS Lewis) warned, tries to “subdue reality (the things of the universe) to the wishes of men.”

    How do we differentiate this statement from mankind’s calling to exercise dominion over all the earth (subdue reality) in keeping with shalom?

    I agree with both statements, although they appear to be in conflict.

  3. Mike Metzger

    Gerard:

    The idea behind dominion in Genesis is we are to cooperate with God in improving creation according to his design. The Enlightenment Project encourages humankind to dominate creation – developing it in whatever ways seem to further “the wishes of men” as Lewis put it rather than according to any template given by God.

  4. Got it.

    Domination (oppressive rule) instead of dominion (faithful stewardship); or

    unrestrained wishes of godless men instead of the desires of men restrained by godliness.

    Your clarification was much help to draw the distinctions.

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